Our View: Public's input sought on USFS fees

As the U.S. Forest Service moves toward a fee structure for use and access on Routt National Forest land, we encourage the Forest Service to be specific about what the public will get in return for those fees.

The Forest Service is holding a series of public meetings on winter recreation issues in the Routt National Forest, specifically Rabbit Ears Pass, Buffalo Pass and North Routt County. At the meetings, forest users can comment on the Forest Service's proposed plan of action for the areas mentioned. We strongly encourage residents to participate in those public meetings -- four will be held between Jan. 26 and Feb. 3 -- as the proposed actions will be a significant change from existing forest use and will become the basis for what users will pay to access the land in the future.

The National Forest is under increasing pressure from snowmobilers, skiers, snowshoers and other recreational users, and we don't blame the agency for trying to develop a plan for avoiding conflicts in the future. In essence, the Forest Service would designate specific areas of Rabbit Ears Pass, Buffalo Pass and North Routt for nonmotorized use and for mixed use. The proposal also would create and designate specific trails in those areas for specific uses.

The public has the chance to provide its input on the proposal. People also will be asked for input on parking, facilities, trailhead access, camping and bathrooms. That input will be used to develop a formal plan of action the Forest Service is expected to release this summer.

The final plan likely will require fees. Mary Sanderson, a recreation planner with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests, said the Forest Service will determine costs to implement the actions and that fees are the most likely means by which the Forest Service will meet those costs.

The good news is federal law requires fees charged for a specific area to be spent on that area.

Such fees are not new. Already, fees are in place on the Medicine Bow National Forest. Users can either pay for day access at Medicine Bow trailheads or purchase a season pass, Sanderson said. The Medicine Bow season pass costs about $25 per year and is transferable from one vehicle to another.

Fish Creek Falls is another example of fee-based access. Fees at the falls have paid for parking, upgraded trails, restrooms and general maintenance that have helped make the falls one of Steamboat's top attractions.

No one wants to pay to access public lands they previously have used free. But at least residents have a chance to dictate the services those fees will provide, including increased parking, better trail maintenance, new facilities such as restrooms and picnic areas and better enforcement of existing rules.

Attend one of the public meetings or contact the Forest Service before Feb. 9. That's the best way to help shape how we'll access our public lands in the future and what we'll pay to do it.

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